MacKinnon focused on fulfilling dream of Stanley Cup with Avalanche

Nearly two decades later, MacKinnon is four wins away from fulfilling his dream with the Avalanche.

Though the 26-year-old never had the opportunity to play with Sakic, the Hockey Hall of Fame forward was Colorado’s executive vice president of hockey operations when he was drafted the No. 1 in the 2013 NHL Draft. Nine years later, the boy on the hockey card and his childhood idol are about to do something special.

Colorado will host Game 1 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Ball Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ABC, SN, CBC, TVAS).

“It’s cool,” MacKinnon said Tuesday during the 2022 Stanley Cup Final Media Day. “Hopefully that can happen. I think it’s every kid’s dream to be in that position.”

In his first eight NHL seasons, MacKinnon and the Avalanche never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. This postseason had a different narrative; Colorado is 12-2, with wins against the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers.

The toughest test begins Wednesday when the Avalanche meet two-time defending champion Lightning. Although he smiled on Tuesday when his childhood card was referred to, MacKinnon said there would be time for such nostalgia now that the goal of lifting the trophy has been achieved.

“I’m not trying to get involved in any of this,” he said. “Obviously this is a brand new series. Whether it’s the first round or the finals, we’re playing this one team in this playoff round. I think we need to narrow our focus, stay in the present and just be ready for tomorrow night and go from there.”

By all accounts, MacKinnon is ready, especially with the disappointment of years past still lingering. His frustration boiled over when the favorite Avalanche was defeated by the Vegas Golden Knights in six games in round two last season.

“There’s always next year,” MacKinnon said at the time. “That’s all we’re talking about, I guess. I mean, I’m going into my ninth year next year and I didn’t win [anything]so I’m definitely motivated.”

After having the conversation, he definitely went the way. MacKinnon averaged 1.35 points per game with 88 (32 goals, 56 assists) in 65 games during the 2021-22 regular season and has 18 (11 goals, 7 assists) in 14 playoff games. Along the way, he’s admittedly become a more complete player who’s just as focused on his play in his own zone.

It was a development in MacKinnon’s game that caught the eye of Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, who was part of TNT’s on-the-spot coverage of the Western Conference Finals between the Avalanche and the Oilers.

“The first thing that catches your eye is his speed,” Gretzky said. “He has great speed. Obviously he has awesome offensive skills, but what really caught our eye and covered it on the shows was how aware he was of defensive play.

“He never cheated the puck, so he’s always at the third man height. So, his dedication to playing on the other side of the puck, I think his teammates are more impressed with that than his offensive ability. His offensive skills are so good, so he’s good.”

The Lightning took on the nickname “The Tampa Bay Find-A-Ways” as they fought for the championship for the third year in a row. Colorado coach Jared Bednar said he saw the same quality in MacKinnon’s game this season.

“I think the evolution of what ‘Nate’ did in these playoffs is that he didn’t put as much weight on his shoulders to be the top producer,” Bednar said. “He’s willing to do anything to win and I think he’s sacrificed a little bit of his game for what’s best for the team. He’s taken the big controlling roles in all of our series, trying to win those matchups because he knows our depth can potentially win the matchups under him. So it’s the greatest task there is and he’s won those matchups while still doing an amazing job on the control side. So that’s the growth for him.

“For me, he’s focused on keeping the puck out of our net and then still meddling. I think he’s probably put a lot of pressure on himself over the past few years to make sure he’s making the difference on offense. So he understands where our team has arrived. Really good development in his game. I’ve loved his playoffs so far.

***

Who is number 1?

Patrick Roy asked a question that would change the fortunes of the Avalanche for more than a decade.

It was the spring of 2013 and they were holding meetings to discuss the candidates from which to choose the best pick for the upcoming draft.

“I remember Nate MacKinnon’s draft, I was very lucky because Joe was very supportive,” Roy said last week. “I’ve been to those meetings. They talked about (Florida Panthers Center) Alexander Barkov and (Defender for the Chicago Blackhawks) Seth Jones.”

The Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender, who played for Colorado when it won the 1996 and 2001 cup, was hired as an Avalanche coach on May 23. He has been the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League coach and general manager for the past eight seasons and had coached against MacKinnon, who had 75 points (32 goals, 43 assists) in 44 games for Halifax in the 2012-13 season.

MacKinnon then wowed scouts and fans alike by leading his junior team to the Memorial Cup with 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in four games. In doing so, he’d demonstrated the kind of flair he felt Colorado needed.

So he put things into perspective for Sakic.

“The others are very good hockey players, but MacKinnon was a superstar,” Roy said. “I said to Joe, ‘What do you want, do you want to put people in the building or just have a very good hockey player?'”

[RELATED: Stanley Cup Final coverage | Stanley Cup Final schedule]

It didn’t take long for Sakic and the Avalanche to find an answer. MacKinnon was the choice.

“He’s probably right,” Sakic, now her general manager, said with a chuckle Tuesday of Roy’s analysis. “Since he broke into the league he has the ability to excite and make you jump out of your seat for sure.

“He has so much speed, explosive speed, not just speed. He’s such a strong guy and no one wants it more than him. He’s really competitive and that’s what you get out of him. We remember, it’s like, you want to win, but you also have to want to entertain.”

As of 2013, MacKinnon is sixth in the NHL regular season with 648 points (242 goals, 406 assists) in 638 games, all with the Avalanche. Barkov, who was voted No. 2 by Florida, is 25th in that span with 553 points (220 goals, 333 assists) in 596 games. Jones, drafted No. 4 by Nashville, is the 19th-ranked defenseman with 337 points (70 goals, 267 assists) in 658 games with the Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Blackhawks since the 2013 draft.

“I think these three players have had a great career,” said Sakic. “But he was the only game changer who could really entertain the fans. We are very lucky to have Nathan on our team.”

Roy, back in coaching Quebec, agrees, especially with what he’s seen from MacKinnon this postseason.

“MacKinnon, when he gets on his horse, when he flies, my god, he’s fun to watch,” Roy said. “I watch ‘Mac’ play, he gets pushed around, but there’s no retribution. You can tell he’s on a mission.”

***

Cole Harbor is a community in Nova Scotia, eight miles north of downtown Halifax. It’s usually a place that cheers for the Pittsburgh Penguins, as it’s also Center’s hometown Sydney Crosby.

But after the Penguins were eliminated by the New York Rangers in the first round, allegiances changed, at least for the next few weeks. Increasingly, avalanche flags are being distributed across town in support of MacKinnon, also from Cole Harbor.

“Hey, I cheer for him too,” said Troy Crosby, Sidney’s father. “I would have preferred to be able to cheer for the penguins in the final, but that didn’t happen. So I wish [MacKinnon] All the best.

“Nathan is Sidney’s neighbor up by the lake, so I’ve gotten to know him pretty well over the years. They have become good friends. They shot Tim Horton’s commercials together. He’s a very talented boy I’m surprised the community is in his corner. He’s one of us.”

Jon Greenwood echoed those sentiments. He was one of MacKinnon’s minor hockey coaches and teachers and remembers the boy playing for the AAA bantam Cole Harbor Wings when he had 145 points as a 13-year-old.

“You can see how much he wants it, and the community wants it too,” Greenwood said in a phone interview from Nova Scotia. “With Nathan in the finals, that area is behind him and the Avalanche. It’s usually Penguin territory for obvious reasons, but now Colorado is the team of choice for the upcoming season.”

During the off-season, Greenwood skates daily in an arena that hosts MacKinnon, Crosby, and Boston Bruins forwards Brad Marchand.

“They’re friends off the ice, but they push each other on the ice,” Greenwood said. “At the end of the sessions, when there’s puck fights in the corner, these guys are really competitive. There are no friends in these exercises.”

Crosby (2009, 2016, 2017) and Marchand (2011) have won the Stanley Cup, something MacKinnon is trying to emulate.

“There’s a bit of twitter about it, but Nathan knows what’s at stake,” Greenwood said. “He doesn’t need the incentive. He’s already very competitive. And he looks like he’s on a mission right now.”

For MacKinnon, having the Cole Harbor folks in his corner is just another boost to his confidence.

“Lots of Penguins fans there and rightly so,” he said. “But yes, there was always a lot of support for our team, even when we weren’t doing well. Everyone was so helpful and super nice.

“Obviously I’m not there, I don’t see it, but I’m sure hearing about it. Hopefully we can make them super proud.”

NHL.com columnists Dave Stubbs and Nicholas J. Cotsonika contributed to this story

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